In 2002 I was invited to look at some vacant rural parishes. I decided to visit the churches and quietly pray in them. I found my way to St Katharine’s church in Little Bardfield, Essex. The door opened with a creak and I stepped inside. I knew as soon as I entered that God wanted me to go there.
Most of St Katharine’s dates from 1042. The interior was restored by G.F. Bodley in the 1860s. Between 1910 and 1940 Little Bardfield was home to the Brotherhood of St Paul, an Anglo-Catholic seminary established by the rector, Edward Mears. The parish declined sadly after Fr Mears retired in 1940. In 1967 it was amalgamated with Great Bardfield and felt itself to be the poor neighbour. When I was licensed later in 2002, the bishop described St Katharine’s to me as ‘the church which time forgot.’
I have spent a long time pondering the role of a small country church in the modem world. If we were running the Church of England along business lines, a church like this would have been closed long ago. Much of contemporary church thinking and planning appears to be for suburban parishes.
How is a small rural church to point people to Jesus Christ? The answer, I suggest, is that (a) it must seek to minister to everyone and avoid becoming a club for the initiated, and (b) it must use the opportunity afforded by the visits of tourists. This means that the church must be a holy place with a strong sense of the numinous. My hope is that visitors will enter St Katharine’s expecting just to look around an historic building, but that they will sense they are in a special place and perhaps be moved to say a prayer. In a nutshell, I pray that some may enter as tourists but leave as pilgrims.
For a church to have a sense of the numinous, it must be regularly used and cared for. When I arrived, I found that there was only a monthly service. I began a Eucharist every Sunday, a weekday Eucharist, and other services from time to time. Two things have made a big difference to the atmosphere. The tabernacle installed by Bodley in the 1860s had become damaged and had not been used for some time. We repaired it and began again to reserve the Sacrament. God’s gift of a special stillness and peace has built up around the tabernacle in the chancel. Secondly, in 2004 we held the first service on Good Friday for many years. Afterwards, I noticed that St Katharine’s had begun to feel like an ordinary parish church again. Others felt the difference and one person remarked, ‘When I first came here, this place felt like a barn. It now feels like a church.’
It is not enough, though, simply to worship. The House of God must also be well cared for. I am lucky to have good churchwardens and an enthusiastic congregation. We had to spend a long time cleaning and tidying the church. I should add that the congregation of Great Bardfield have gone out of their way to help, and the perception that Little Bardfield is the poor relation has evaporated. We began fund-raising and restored Bodley’s rood, reredos, altar and tabernacle, the war memorial, and a seventeenth-century monument. We have also been presented with a statue of our patron saint. We are presently working on a scheme to re-wire the church, to install running water, and to redecorate throughout.
All of my ministry before coming here had been spent in urban parishes. In the countryside I have had to learn to do new things as well as to do old things in new ways. Townies can have rather a romantic view of rural church life. Agriculture employs very few people. The bulk of our parishioners commute or have retired.
The population changes rapidly. If people did not attend church in the suburbs, they will not usually begin to do so when they move into a village. I think that most people are pleased to know that the parish church is there, but they feel little need to come to its services. It takes great courage to attend church in a village, because, unlike an urban parish, there is little anonymity.
We are constantly seeking new ways to reach out. Great and Little Bardfield churches have begun a Sunday School, children’s Saturday craft mornings, and a mother and toddler service on Thursdays. There has been a modest growth in the numbers of people attending church. More humbling still has been to see them grow in faith. In Little Bardfield this has led the congregation to feel able to make suggestions and to take responsibility for running things.
We have discovered a rich variety of talents. A particularly good example was a Bank Holiday weekend flower festival organized by a committee of parishioners. St Katharine’s was filled with flowers, musicians provided music, parishioners served refreshments and sold cakes. Over sixty people attended an open-air Eucharist followed by a picnic. Parishioners have organized concerts, an auction, a gift day for Iraqi children, and have served afternoon tea to visitors once a month before Evensong.
One important task has been to replace our service books, which were full of holes and held together by sticky tape, and which created a bad first impression amongst newcomers. This leads on to the idea that we should aim to make our churches centres of excellence. We certainly could not claim this yet for St Katharine’s, but we know that tatty, run down churches will not do.
We live in a society where, in perhaps a generation and a half, patterns of Christian thought and behaviour which sustained generations have been swept aside or have crumbled away. This poses a challenge to all Christians. There are no easy solutions. We must use our resources – our prayers, our worship, the skills and imagination of our congregations, our church buildings, and, crucially, our love, to the very best of our ability. When people who know little of Christianity enter a church, it is important that they sense they have entered a special, holy and welcoming place, which reflects values quite unlike those of the world around. A city set upon a hill.